4-4-2: Ba(lla)ck to the Future?

Funny how two ideas often coincide, having had no apparent link. But, still smiling from the pulsating victory on Sunday, I wondered if the decision by Jose Mourinho to play 4-4-2 against the Hammers was one that had the medium to longer term in view, including the revamping of the midfield to a diamond four or, occasionally a flat four.

When Mourinho started at Chelsea, injuries forced him to play four in midfield, occasionally drawing a fifth with Eidur Gudjohnsen playing just behind Didier Drogba. But come the fitness of Arjen Robben and Damien Duff, and Joe Cole getting more games, Mourinho unveiled a pattern not seen for many years in England: 4-3-3. It seemed an absolute revelation, in the space of nine games we scored four goals in six of them, and looked unplayable at times. Gullit’s sexy football was being talked of again, but with a new panache, tempo and power because it was built on a rock solid defence – something we hadn’t experienced before. Very few teams could live with us, defensively or offensively.

Of course there were times when it didn’t work too well but for the majority of games, this formation carried all before it: it demolished Barcelona, rolled over Bayern Munich, but did come unstuck when injuries hit again, against the Red Scousers in the Champions League semi-final. Overall though we thought that 4-4-2 was old hat, only for others who wanted to play conservatively. Manchester United flirted with 4-4-1-1, Arsenal played a fluid 4-5-1 system, others often played five across the middle hoping to blunt our assertive, aggressive system of two wingers playing at pace and a midfield based around Frank Lampard (on top form), Claude Makelele (protection man for the centre backs) and one other from any three, depending on the circumstances. All well and good when it’s working well and players are in form.

But this season has been less successful, not helped by several players being evidently below par. Lampard has looked jaded and often lacks the edge of last year; Gudjohnsen has lost that incisive cutting edge in his passing; Michael Essien has taken time to settle; and teams have started to mark Makelele so the rhythm of the team has been disrupted. However our sheer persistence, power and no mean quality has carried us through to where we are now, on the verge of another pretty good season – we’ve already qualified for the Champions League, are close to back-to-back Premiership titles, in the semi-finals of the FA Cup against the old enemy, so no complaints. Yet, nagging at many of us is the question – why aren’t we better than last year?

So has Mourinho made the big decision to change how we play? I think we’re more defensive this year and haven’t terrorised teams as we did. Sure we’ve beaten the Arse and the Hubcap Boys but rarely have we damaged teams as we did last year. Mourinho’s recognised this and may have decided that another formation will protect the defence, tighten midfield and give our forwards more chance of scoring. If Michael Ballack arrives this summer, he could play Makelele as now, Lampard and Essien together, and Ballack off the front two. Not bad at all. But would that be the end of Robben, Duff and Joe Cole, let alone Shaun Wright-Phillips?

What happens up front seems so vital to our play and I do wonder if Mourinho has decided that greater fluidity is needed. Remember that both Duff and Robben have played forward roles with previous clubs and nationally, so Drogba may well be able to play with another forward. Even Gudjohnsen has a role in such a set-up. I do expect that Hernan Crespo may well be sacrificed in this team, but what if Mourinho surprises us and gets, say, Jermain Defoe instead? Another pacy forward who plays off a target man well.

So maybe 4-4-2 has a real future, and it could be switched to another formation with ease in any game. But I do believe that this change may well be dependent on Ballack’s arrival. If the German chooses to go elsewhere, could Mourinho decide that 4-4-2 still works with Joe Cole or Gudjohnsen off the front two? What if Crespo goes, who would be the other striker? Is Carlton Cole going to be at Reading or with us? The possibilities are endless, but I do think this may be B(all)ack to the future for us.